Thursday, June 20, 2024

Cranleigh: The school with the Olympic touch

Cranleigh School is gaining a growing reputation for hockey with, most recently, back-to-back national girls’ U16 title. Head of admissions at the Surrey school is none other than 1988 Olympic Games hockey gold medallist Steve Batchelor. Batchelor’s own children have all attended the Surrey school and two of his team-mates from Seoul have also sent children there.

So the hockey connections are strong, but Batchelor – who has been at Cranleigh for over 20 years – is clear what the school’s priorities are: “We have a good few years tradition of hockey behind us now and it goes from strength to strength, but this is a school and it is here to educate,” says the three-time Olympian.

“Around all the hockey that goes on, the boys and girls do many different things. Academic lessons come first, but then there are three or four girls in our U14s and U16s who are music scholars. Four or five of them will have been in school plays or house plays during the term as well and they will all have a number of interests outside hockey.”

He continues: “We do take our hockey seriously but we also want them to have a go at everything else – it’s not just tunnel vision. It has to be the full picture so when they come out of this place they are rounded individuals.”

Batchelor takes the lead with the U14 boys and girls squads at the school, with the seniors under the charge of Richard Organ, current coach of the national championship winning East Grinstead indoor side. And while Batchelor has reached the pinnacle of the sport himself, he revels in seeing hockey enjoyed at all levels.

“I get a huge amount of pleasure meeting up with Old Cranleighans who are still playing and who say ‘Yes we are in the third team at this university and so on,’ says Batchelor. “That gives me a buzz – that they have loved hockey so much here they have carried on with it.

“We will run 16-18 hockey teams here for the boys, the girls will be a little fewer. Everyone can play – from the county, regional and England players to those who just enjoy the game. I’d say it is a big club – a big junior section with lots of people playing hockey. We are also very fortunate in having good coaches right through the school.”

Cranleigh’s success has been building of late with, most recently, Cranleigh’s U16 girls retaining the national outdoor title this February. Batchelor’s own children – Anna, now working in London; Tom, currently at Durham University and a former England U18 international; Katie, playing at East Grinstead and heading to University of Birmingham; and Megan who has trialled with England U16s, have all been part of that success. And the school has produced a steady stream of representative players including Charlotte Calnan, now in her second year with England U16s, and recent alumni Jonny and James Gall both of whom played for England in December’s junior World Cup.

Two of Batchelor’s brothers-in-arms from 1988 – Robert Clift and Richard Leman have also sent their children to Cranleigh. Seb Leman is about to go into the sixth form, while Leo is in his first year at Cranleigh. The second of Rob Clift’s sons Oli is set to join the senior school next school year. “When you get a call from those guys and they want to send their children here, that means a lot to me,” says Batchelor.

From the Clift clan, Ali played England U18s while at Cranleigh and now plays for Nottingham University. Oli is vice-captain of the Cranleigh Preparatory School hockey side having joined the school for his final prep year.

“Alastair decided he wanted to move for his A-Levels,” says Robert Clift. “He liked the idea of boarding and Cranleigh had a very strong hockey reputation. He was in the England U16 squad at that stage and the two went together.

“We obviously knew Steve and we came along here and we were just blown away by the place – the whole ethos and the interest they showed in what he did and the quality of the coaches.

“Ali joined for his sixth form and really loved it and came on leaps and bounds in a couple of years.”

Clift continues: “We were thinking about what to do for Oli for his schooling. In the independent private system there is a change at 13, that was coming up but we decided to bring that forward. That was an academic decision rather than a sporting one. But we knew that the sport that is done here is done in the right way. They look for excellence but not at the expense of sportsmanship or teamwork. There are no superstars – they want everyone to participate but they want to achieve really good results. The balance is just perfect.”

Clift was keen for his sons to take up a team game – whatever it was.

“Oli and Ali have been attracted to hockey partly because I played. But I would have been happy for them to do any team sport Playing a team sport gives you experiences you can use elsewhere. It helps them develop as people.”

With two generations of hockey players brought together, to talk to PUSH, there is inevitable talk about how the game has changed.

“It is quite technical what they do,” says Clift. “They are encouraged to work on small skills.” Batchelor says he is often questioned if today’s youngsters are better than him.

“If I get asked, do they have better skills, I say ‘yes’. The skill level of the boys and girls and what they can do with the new rules and so on is amazing. The only thing I would say I can still equal all of them with is that I can still hit the ball better than a lot of them – proper hitting with accuracy.

“That is one of the things I always prided myself on, working with Sean [Kerly] actually. He was a year older than me and we lived next door to each other. We just used to go out and practise for hours and hours.

“From the age of 16-17, when I first met Sean, we used to go to the pitch and I’d hit the ball to Sean and he’d practise scoring. When we played at Southgate together we did the same there.”

Batchelor is modest about his coaching success with the younger sides at Cranleigh.

“There are two things I tell them when they first come into the school – we are going to have lots of fun and we are going to get your basics right,” he says.

“I am pleased about getting the U14 girls into the national finals three years running. I joke with the parents that when they win it is because of the coach, when they lose, it’s their fault for getting it wrong!

“But it is nothing to do with me. Hopefully I have a good rapport with them and get the basics right – but I am not an amazing coach. Richard Organ [director of hockey] does all the tactics and he is very good at that.

“Because of the era I played hockey in, I did it for fun. I didn’t do it be a professional hockey player, it was just for the love of the game. That is what I try and instil in them I just want to ensure they enjoy their first year of hockey here.”

With many of the sons and daughters of the generation of 1988 having followed their fathers into hockey, there has been some talk of a players versus children challenge match. Katie Batchelor is one of those very keen on the idea.

Her father, Steve, accepts a straight fathers-versus-children game would be a tough proposition for the parents. “It would be carnage and we would be beaten quite comfortably,” he says. “But we might have some way around that.”

Cranleigh School has itself produced two hockey Olympians – both team-mates of Batchelor. David Westcott captained the 1984 Olympic bronze-medal side and Don Williams played in what was Batchelor’s final Olympics, Barcelona 1992.

Conversation inevitably turns to the Olympic Games, not least because Batchelor has the iconic picture from 1988 final of him punching the sky after GB’s killer third goal against Germany.

“I just love everything about that picture,” he says. That was the moment everyone thought we had won the Olympic medal because it was 3-0 with about 15 minutes to go. The funny thing about the photograph is everyone thinks I scored but, if you remember, I passed to Imran [Sherwani].

“What doesn’t show up is I ran over to the bench and slid down on my knees in front of manager Roger Self. ‘Get up. It’s not over yet,’ he said, and brought us back to earth.

“In the final we just had some belief that we were going to win it. Some matches, you go into – even with the boys or girls at the nationals – you really feel you are going to win. And in that game I don’t think anyone thought we were going to lose. In the changing rooms beforehand everyone was calm – it was quite strange – it was one of those moments.”

Back in the present, Steve Batchelor also runs the SJB Academy, which he set up with his wife Jackie, coaching both tennis and hockey in what is very much a family business.

All his children assist with the coaching.

“Having Anna, Megan and Tom and Katie all out there together coaching hockey, that is very special,” he says.

1988 Olympic hockey gold medallist Steve Batchelor and daughter Megan (c) Tom Cooper

Olympian fathers 1: Robert Clift and Oli

Oli Clift on his dad’s success: “It doesn’t really affect me, I just go out there and play how I play. But it is nice to have him to ask about how I can improve.

“It is exciting just going out and playing for the school and it is fun. Then when you succeed that is really nice too.

“I play in midfield – it is a nice balance between defending and attacking.”

Rob Clift says: “I do coach him a little. I coach the county team that he plays for and I try to give him a few hints and tips without forcing anything down his throat.”

1988 Olympic hockey gold medallist Robert Clift and son Oli (c) Tom Cooper

Olympian fathers 2 : Steve Batchelor and Megan

Megan Batchelor says: “They [the team from 1988] still meet up and they are all friends. We are all connected somehow and I am surrounded by hockey! The hockey family is like my own.

“I try not to get dad too involved in my hockey because people start making comments that your dad is getting you places. So it’s normally my mum who takes me. I do like him watching me play, but it makes me a little nervous!

“I love the team aspect of hockey. Winning the nationals with your hockey team is just an unbelievable feeling.”

Charlotte Calnan

At Cranleigh with Charlotte Calnan

Charlotte Calnan is now in her second year with England U16 squad. She also plays for Surbiton in the Investec women’s hockey league premier division. Her brother Will was also at Cranleigh, and is in the England U18 squad.

“If I didn’t have sport I don’t know what I would do,” she says. “I used to play almost every sport. In my first year at Cranleigh I made the England U15 [hockey] camp an that was when I decided that hockey was something that I really wanted to do.”

Charlotte missed last year’s U16 national schools championship final because of  an injury, making this February’s 4-1 final win over Denstone College a special moment.

“Last year I broke my foot in the semi-final,” she says. “This year the final was a really good match and it meant a lot to me, because I played in it.”

Girls at the school play a variety of sports – hockey in the Michaelmas term, netball in the Lent term and tennis in the summer. On the tennis court, Charlotte is doubles partner with hockey team-mate Megan Batchelor.
“It is good to play something that is just a bit more relaxed and enjoyable,” says Charlotte. “I used to play a lot of tennis and, even though I can’t play at a higher level now because I had to commit to hockey, Cranleigh gives me the opportunity to play.”

Hockey is, however, very much her focus and, with Megan to practice with, there is plenty of opportunity to work on her skills.

“Even if we don’t have a training session, we’d probably go down to the astro and knock a ball around,” she says. “We are lucky to have three pitches here.”

Charlotte is also feeling the benefit of the availability of new strength and conditioning coach Simon Brearley.

“Last year I was new to the England programme. We were sent out fitness stuff and I had no idea what it was. This year he does it all with us. He will make sure we are lifting weights correctly, which is something that girls don’t always do.”


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